Storytelling: How To Create Games That Resonate Inter-culturally.
“If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And here I make a rule — a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.”
― John Steinbeck
Harsh Rodrigo is originally from Sri Lanka and is currently based in Finland. She does not consider herself a Gamer but she is great at creating and adapting local content to a global audience.
In the past, she worked in a company called Fun Academy that dealt with early education exports from Finland to other countries. She created content for education in this gamified company, made it universally adaptable, and in the process got to work with Education Experts, Gamers, Designers, and Developers.
She is currently a Tech Recruiter and specializes in Intercultural Communication. On Saturday the 18th of July, she took the Africa Game Developers Community through how to export stories from Africa to the world with games in a way any player from anywhere in the world could relate.
Why is it important to tell stories that transcend cultural boundaries?
Your story needs to be relatable in order to capture and keep the attention of people from across the world so that you can:
i) Reach a wider audience-This way you stay afloat as a Creative Entrepreneur in the Gaming Industry by getting as many downloads as possible. It will also help with brand awareness. The more people know about you, then the more they are likely to interact with your games.
ii) Pass your core message across- This way you can deliver impact to your community: for instance, promoting your Country and Culture. You can share a cause that is unique to you and show people who don’t have the same experiences as you do why it matters through the game.
iii) Include as many different people as possible- This way you give everyone the opportunity to benefit from what you have to provide which could be a fun experience or a learning opportunity. And you want as many different people to share that.
Harsh admitted she feels like she grew up on the wrong side of the digital divide. She was a girl growing up in South Asia and even with high literacy rates and focus on female education, it was still a more conservative way of life. You go to school, you read books, you do homework but do not play games — especially if you are a girl.
As a result, she could not play many games and only has memory of playing Super Mario a few times. She grew up not having the access and as a result not developing the intuition needed to handle games. The storylines also had a lot to do with shooting and fighting which did not interest her at all.
However, if we create games that are more inclusive, we will give more people a chance to improve their playing skills. And hopefully even become game developers themselves.
What does ‘Intercultural’ mean?
Intercultural means communication between any types of pockets of people: for instance between the young and old, women and men, private and public sector, games from Africa and Investors from the Nordics just to mention a few. People usually think it is communication between different Countries or Nationalities only but as we have seen, it goes beyond just that.
It is also good to remember that everyone falls in some cross-section of cultures. For instance, Harsh is a Woman working in tech who is Sri Lankan and has grown up in Europe. Therefore, when writing stories, it’s good to navigate through all these different layers of cultures for them to be more relatable.
How can you make a story Globally appealing?
i) Focus on human interest.
There are some things that are Universal, for example, our emotions as a human race. We all feel things like desire, love, sense of achievement, fear, the need to protect, and the need for safety.
Using these, you can revolve the theme of the story around a certain emotional journey. This will be the best way to get the story across because people are able to relate to these feelings without knowing the context.
Meaning the plot, the environment, and even the music can be very different but because of these shared emotions, the story will be relatable.
ii) If possible, use a lingua franca or don’t use words at all.
Lingua franca is a common language that is adopted by people whose native languages are different so that they can understand each other. For example, Swahili is the lingua franca of Kenya and many African countries.
Other than using a lingua franca, it is said that people generally prefer watching or interacting with things that do not need subtitles; therefore we need to keep this in mind.
Another creative way would be not to use words at all: Harsh used the Pingu animations as an example of that. The animations only made these random weird noises but they were still the most loved characters back in the day. Another great example would be Mr Bean; it is very popular yet he never really says anything.
iii) Make the design inclusive.
It’s good to consider the fact that some people are colour blind and they cannot appreciate colour like the rest of us. What do you have to cater to someone who is not able to hear? It’s good to take these things into account. Inclusive design ensures that everyone can relate to your story.
iv) If possible, allow for adaptation.
We relate most to our mirror images. So even with our great ability to empathize as human beings, nothing beats stories with characters representing people who are like us.
v) Introduce context in digestible doses.
Remember to give everything in moderation. Give the player a chance to explore and discover things on their own instead of telling them everything. Give them snippets of context. Immerse them in context without them even realizing.
It could be in the landscape they are walking through or it could be the sound that they are listening to. Soon they discover something which helps them make a connection. This makes them curious and leaves them wanting to find out more. They keep on discovering things and ultimately you don’t have to explain much to them.
Great stories are the kind you figure out on your own because you feel a part of it when you understand what is going on.
What are examples of games that have gotten the ‘story’ right?
Never Alone- The sole purpose it was made for was to keep one traditional culture going because its native languages were dying out. The Alaska Native Community of Storytellers and Elders decided to create a game that delves deeply into the traditional lore of the Iñupiat people. That way they could preserve the stories for their young ones as well as share them with the rest of the World.
Unravel- It is based in Sweden and is influenced by the Northern Scandinavian landscape. The main character is not a human being but a ball of wool, the kind you use to knit with. The environment, the music, and the design used are inherently Nordic. This is a way to bring out the rich culture of the Nordic region through design. It is a heartfelt story of re-connecting the memories of a long lost family, told completely without words.
Pikkuli- It is based on a Finnish fairy tale and the main character of this game is a bird. Pikkuli means nonsense or gibberish. This Finnish game won the hearts of children in India, China, Brazil, South Korea, and Slovakia. 3 things about Pikkuli make it a great fit for what it is trying to do. One of them is helping little children develop different cognitive skills.
It is easy to follow especially for children, regardless of where they are from. It is also very family-oriented because the story is about a family of birds and their interaction with the other animals around them. It also has a wonderful multiplayer element. It can be hooked up to a smart screen in a kindergarten and 10 different children can play at the same time by touching the screen and moving the characters around. All these children can contribute and be a part of the story together.
One thing to note is that Pikkuli is not the type of child who does everything their parents tell them to do. I doubt there’s anyone who followed what their parents told them to do all the time. Therefore, in cultures where children are to be seen but not heard, Pikkuli is not the best idol even though she behaves like a normal child.
There’s also a level in the game where Pikkuli searches for berries which are common fruits in Finland. However, when you go to other countries like the UK, berries can be poisonous. This is a big problem because the game can inspire the children to explore the idea in such a country and could potentially get them poisoned.
There’s another point where Pikkuli goes swimming which is also a common thing in Finland because there are so many lakes there. However, it is never a good idea for children to go swimming without adult supervision. It is important to emphasize that this is a game and the children should not do the things they see in it at home.
A story is important in everything but it is not the only thing that’s important.It is good to note something about the best games out there.Candy Crush Saga, Minecraft, Solitaire, World of WarCraft, Fifa and Grand Theft Auto don’t necessarily have a story. If they do, the story is not necessarily the best but they are still incredibly popular.
The gameplay should also be put into consideration. However, to make the game more intercultural,striking a balance between storytelling and the gameplay will be important. We need to make great stories that can go global in order to share our values, create awareness of our incredibly rich culture, and help the world connect a little bit more.
On that note, she ended her session with these words: “So I really hope that if you get something out of this, it would be that you should create great games with great stories that all kinds of people can relate to and that you will be able to strike that balance.” The floor was opened for a question and answer session which you can listen to in the recording of this session starting from minute 46:00.
I would like to thank Harsh for taking her time to be with us on the 18th and sharing her incredibly helpful knowledge on Intercultural Storytelling and why it is important. It got me thinking at the end of the day that we all want our creations to make an impact, outlive us, and be our legacies. So can we now go out there and create experiences that resonate Globally? Go on and say it with me “Yes we can!”
LudiqueWorks is a video game publishing and video game development company based out of Africa. With a network of 150+ studios in 30 countries across Africa.
LudiqueWorks invests in nascent video game development studios on the continent through training and funding, as well as building a growing video gaming community through the Africa Game Developers network.